New North Press visit & St Bride tour
I am incredibly thankful for a job that allows me to take a trip to London and have a fun couple of days under the guise of ‘work’. My first stop was New North Press in Hoxton. We’ve exchanged Christmas cards as part of the ‘Letterpress Christmas card exchange’ and from what I’ve seen on Instagram, they have a pretty impressive type collection. I wasn’t disappointed. I was greeted by Beatrice, who has a light German accent which brings about an incredible aura of calmness about her. She introduces me to Graham, the founder of New North Press and the three of us chat for a while before Beatrice carries on with what she was doing – book binding. They kindly let me have a good nosey around the studio, pulling out drawers and peeking in old little boxes whilst we chat. Graham even had a tray of ‘modernistic’ type for sale, which I purchased. He also shows me the work produced by all the participants of ‘Letterpress workers 2015’ held in Milan which they had just got back from. I was sad not to have seen any print action going on whilst I was there though – maybe next time!
My next stop was a visit to St Bride Library. When I was last there I met Mick who offered to show me around the place if I were to come again. So a few weeks later, here I was. Mick first showed me to the print room with an impressive number of presses, a couple which date to the 1600s. But I’d seen this room before; I was keen to see what treasures lay behind closed doors. I’m shown the remarkable William Blades library, which I didn’t take a photo of because I found my eyes fixed on all the rows of old spines. I quickly ask which is the oldest book. Mick grabs a key from the side, opens up one of the locked cabinets and slides a piece of glass on the table. “This one.” Wedged between the two pieces of glass is a preserved piece of old torn parchment with what looks like hieroglyphics written on it. I’m told it dates back 3,500 years. It is very beautiful. But seeing as it’s technically not a book, I ask again to see the oldest book (noun. a written or printed work consisting of pages glued or sewn together along one side and bound in covers). I am satisfied when I hear a thud as a box hits the table. Inside the box is a book. This book fastens together with a metal ornate clasp and dates back to around 1470. This is one of the first printed books with hand written letters at the start of every paragraph drawn in red by rubricators. I’ve never seen this before, but read about it in ‘Shady Characters’ so it was great to see it with my own eyes. Interestingly, the spellings of words were changed so that the text could be justified nicely. There were no rules back then, and I’m all for that. I’m told it’s worth about £500,000
We move on upstairs where I meet Bob the senior librarian. He’s sat at his desk, which is lined with wooden composing sticks, but not ones like I’ve seen before. These ones have no mechanism to change the line length. He tells me they are set line composing sticks for composing type for newspapers. I instantly want one. Across the room I see a beautiful large wooden set of drawers labelled with names to differentiate type sizes before the point system came into place. I pull one open and they are still full of freshly cast type!
We walk through the minstrel gallery, where music used to be played to guests downstairs in the ballroom and through to the treasure room. This room was a field of huge filing cabinet systems, which made me feel a bit like one of the Borrowers. It felt awfully utilitarian, and looked like the most unlikely treasure room! I asked to see some of Eric Gill’s sketches. They were a true delight!
I was also shown some incredible photographic watermarks. I then found the letterpress aisle (< === If only there was one of those at the supermarket!) where there were stacks and stacks of matrices in beautiful wooden boxes, in pristine condition and numerical order.
On the next aisle there were lots of small, old and worn cardboard boxes. Intrigued, I plucked one off the shelf and inside was the most beautiful ornate hand carved wooden type. I had found it – the wooden treasure. I’m told they were wood blocks carved by Louis Pouchee. A true delight to hold them – I don’t think they had ever been inked! I put the box back and pulled out another, and then another, all full of Louis Pouchee hand carved wood type. It’s a shame they are hidden away! I have offered to return and proof it all…
Louis Pouchee hand carved wood type
I then made a three mile round walk to the nearest wholesome raw food café before returning to listen to Alex Christie introduce her new book ‘Gutenberg’s Apprentice’, a historical novel based on the creation of movable type. I’m hoping to read it on holiday this week!
The next day I was doing my rounds at the degree shows. I diverted away from the CSM show due to lack of time (poor planning on my part!) and headed for the letterpress studio. The door was locked. But to my delight the technician appeared behind me to open the door. I introduced myself and it wasn’t until I walked in that I recognised some Letterpress Christmas exchange cards. Then it clicked whom I was talking to; we had exchanged cards the past couple of years! I swooned over the Heidelberg windmill immediately; I’d love to print with one one day! Only Helen gets to use this – not even the students. I’m given the gift of a pica ruler as I leave – cheers!
Helen Ingham – Letterpress technician at CSM